Former North Herts College principal and CEO Matt Hamnett reveals how the demands of the job forced him to quit

PUBLISHED: 18:29 15 January 2018 | UPDATED: 16:29 16 January 2018

Matt Hamnett, former chief executive and principal at North Herts College. Picture: Archant

Matt Hamnett, former chief executive and principal at North Herts College. Picture: Archant

Archant

Matt Hamnett’s decision to resign as the chief executive officer of Hart Learning Group – which includes North Hertfordshire College – after just two years in post left many stunned. Here, in an exclusive interview with TES, he reveals how the demands of the job forced him to quit.

Former North Herts College principal Matt Hamnett pictured at the new Airbus Foundation Discovery Space STEM Centre. Picture: ArchantFormer North Herts College principal Matt Hamnett pictured at the new Airbus Foundation Discovery Space STEM Centre. Picture: Archant

As I walked across the college car park, I felt my chest tighten, and tighten some more. I felt my hands less with every step; first a tingling, then numbness, then nothing at all. My mind began to pixelate; my thoughts became pressured, weary and slow. I was still some way from my desk, so slipped into a trusted colleague’s ground floor office and sat down.

I think I’m having a heart attack.

As she checked my blood pressure with a monitor retrieved from a healthcare classroom – high, but no higher than it had been for some months – we both began to cry. That was the moment I knew my race was run. The point at which I knew I had nothing left to give to the institution, the team I care about so deeply.

I was appointed CEO of North Hertfordshire College (NHC) in 2015 – later creating the Hart Learning Group, which also included the Hart Schools Trust and commercial arm Hart Learning & Development. In November 2017, NHC and Hart L&D were judged to be good with outstanding features by Ofsted. A matter of days after the inspection, I resigned.

The job completely consumed me for almost three years. When I took up the post, we had a great deal of work to do, much of it fundamental, to create the institution that our students, business customers and local communities deserved. The decision to immerse myself in the task of leading our transformation was a conscious one. Given our starting point, I considered that it would be necessary. Given our purpose, I considered it worthwhile.

My experience of our journey was as brutal as it was exhilarating. Particularly in the first year in post, my desk was the junction through which passed the traffic of all material management decisions – strategic, operational, sublime or ridiculous. That’s the nature of intensive, operational transformations – however effective the delegation or strong the team.

The biggest challenge for me was not so much the substance of our task. We had a clear strategy and a wonderfully engaged team. Rather, it was the extent to which the job consumed, distracted and drained me outside of the office. I became less and less present in my own life. I found it impossible to enjoy anything other than work. I came to hate the weekends as time during which I could make too little progress.

By the autumn of 2016, I knew that I was running out of steam. Constant fatigue, insomnia, weight loss and a growing sense of isolation. The signs were obvious to me, though I concealed them from others. I have always been acutely conscious that others in the sector, particularly those in teaching roles, work incredibly hard to deliver for their students without the resources or rewards they deserve.

I was determined to keep going until we had passed some of the toughest milestones of the five-year strategy we had agreed in the summer of 2015. But I knew at this point that it would be unlikely that I would be able to run the whole course myself. I began to see the job as a relay race. I saw it as my task to get as far as I could, as fast as I could, before passing the baton to others who could capitalise on the progress I had delivered.

I also began to realise that the race in further education is never, in fact, run. The leadership task is like that of Sisyphus: rolling the rock up the hill, knowing that the eternal gravitational force pushes it back down. Too often, that downward pressure comes from partner organisations that exist to support, not thwart, college performance.

Our Ofsted inspection in November was my Valhalla. The adrenaline rush of an inspection you know is going to go well is like nothing I have ever experienced. The hairs on my arms stand up just thinking about it. I have never seen passion, determination and team work like it. We were judged to be good overall, with outstanding high needs and traineeship provision. Our leadership was praised as “inspirational” – and noted as a cause for the rapid and significant improvement inspectors saw since their previous visit only 16 months before.

The inspection had come a full six months before we expected it, and just two weeks after that panic attack – not, it turned out, a heart attack – in the car park. As I drank and danced my way around Stevenage that Friday night, I wondered whether our success would fill me with the energy I would need to carry on. A week later, it was clear to me that it would not.

I needed an extended break to recover, reflect and decide what could possibly follow the most important achievement of my life. The decision to resign was made easier for the knowledge that I leave behind an organisation overflowing with the passion, skill and determination required to maintain the momentum we worked so hard to build.

I didn’t speak to many people at all about my experience as it was happening – nor did I originally intend to write about it. But the reaction of my closest colleagues and friends encouraged me to do so, in the hope that I might add something to the debate about the demands the FE sector places on those who choose to work within it.

Which race I choose to run next, I have yet to decide. I would certainly not rule out another immersive FE transformation. They’re too important, and too exhilarating.

• The Comet wishes to thank TES for giving us permission to reproduce the article on our website. You can view the article on TES’ website at tes.com/news/further-education.

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